Eschatology (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Eschatology, from the Greek word eschaton (the last), is the theological study of the last things, the final state of each individual, of the community of all individuals, and of reality itself. Thus, traditionally eschatology has dealt with the themes of death, judgment, heaven, hell, purgatory, the resurrection of the dead, the end of the world, and "the new heavens and the new Earth." Generally, eschatology deals with the ultimate destiny of individuals and creation, and what it is legitimate to hope for. For Christians, that destiny is envisioned as the resurrection of each individual with Christ and the transformation and unification of all things with him in God forever. In theological reflection since late 1960s, there has been a shift in stress to the present realities, which through God's active presence in the risen Christ and in the Spirit are considered the seeds or partial realizations of this ultimate destiny (realized eschatology). Full flowering and completion will only be achieved after death and the "final consummation" of the universe.
It is at this point that the natural sciences have a contribution to make. Biology, paleontology, geology, and astronomy help one appreciate the transience and fragility of all that exists, even though nature is continually bringing new things and new life out of dissolution and death. No individual entity or species continues forever. Cosmology assures that the observable universe itself will eventually become sterile and evanesce as it expands forever, undergoing heat death. The natural sciences are, of themselves, unable to discern anything beyond physical dissolution and biological death. However, because theologically there must be a continuity between present reality and its final transformation at the eschaton, certain key characteristics of reality, such as relationality and pattern, will undoubtedly be the enhanced basis for its eschatological completion.
See also DEATH; ETERNITY; LIFE AFTER DEATH
Polkinghorne, John, and Welker, Michael, eds. The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000.
WILLIAM R. STOEGER